Thursday, 20 November 2008

A Taste of Honey - Royal Exchange Manchester

A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney
Director: Jo Combes
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

Fifty years after ' A Taste of Honey' first shocked middle class theatre goers, Shelagh Delaney's ground breaking 1958 'Kitchen Sink' drama has been revived at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. The play still feels as strikingly honest and original as it must have done when it first premiered with Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop.

'A Taste Of Honey' tells the story of Jo, a 17 year old working class 'Salford' girl and her relationship with Helen, her crude and sexually indiscriminate mother. Helen abandons Jo after falling for a rich younger man named Peter leaving Jo to fall into the hungry arms of Jimmy, a black sailor, on short leave in post-war Salford. Following a proposal and consummation, the relationship is over before it has really begun, leaving Jo alone and pregnant, living with her camp acquaintance Geof in her mother's flat. Geof assumes the role of father-to-be until Helen's return. Even after 50 years, the extraordinary quality of the dialogue and characterisation is captivating.

Jo Combes' production of this influential piece of writing is a resounding success. Her slick and well-paced direction has kept this piece alive and kicking. The wonderfully choreographed movement sequences are a delight - giving the piece a beautiful dream-like quality which washes over you without ever becoming indulgent. Additionally Combes has paid homage to the master Littlewood by updating the vaudeville style jazz trio with a live DJ soundtrack (playing iconic songs from the past 50 years through Morrissey to the Ting Tings). At no point are these additions ever detrimental to the integrity of the piece. The production does not focus only on the grittiness and misery of these people's lives - Combe's masterful manipulation of the theatrical within the dialogue (songs/sequences/asides to the audience) and her wonderful cast strike a perfect balance between the comedy and tragedy apparent in the writing.
The five-strong cast convince of mankind's capacity to smile and quip in the face of despair with Sally Lindsay delivering an effortlessly natural performance as Helen. The loving yet neglectful relationship between her and daughter Jo is sincere and moving. The heartbreaking repetition of Helen's reassurance to Jo in the final scene, as she frantically attempts to convince both herself and her daughter that she can be a good mother, is played with exceptional poise and subtlety. Sally Lindsey's razor sharp comic timing and fantastic ability to throw away quips to cast and audience alike ('suppose you have to draw yourself. Nobody else would'), make the most of the character's comic potential. Paul Popplewell is convincing as the abhorrent Peter and Marcelle McCalla's beautiful singing voice adds a moving tenderness to the gentle yet sexually charged scenes between Jo and Jimmie. Jodie McNee as Jo grows in confidence and stature as her character develops from child to mother.

The performance of the evening must be Adam Gillen who is mesmerising as a hugely theatrical yet ultimately convincing Geof. His quirky physicality and impeccable comic timing not only works perfectly, but makes his unconditional asexual love of Jo all the more tragic. These moving scenes between the two lost souls starved of love are judged to perfection, with Geof's line; 'You need someone to love you whilst you're waiting for somebody to love' evoking involuntary sighs from the audience.

Jo Combes, her cast and crew should be applauded on this fantastic performance of a truly remarkable play. It is intelligent, thoughtful and a vivid reminder of why 'A Taste Of Honey' still remains prominent and relevant today. If there is one show you see before the financial grip of Christmas takes over, make sure it's this one.

Photos: Jonathan Keenan
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